As COVID-19 has swept the world, the ripple effects continue to grow and expand and become the issues we cannot ignore. From increased consumption of single-use plastics to economic impacts on small business owners, from tumultuous partisan divisions to the extraordinary toll taken on working mothers, the impacts have been tremendous and aren't going away soon. The devastation caused by the virus itself led to physical loss and separation that continues to rage in communities across the world, while simultaneously leading to a more nuanced devastation that has crept into every other area of our lives.
After a year and a half of grief and trauma, uncertainty and stress, economic upheaval and social isolation, and blinding racial and economic disparities, a whole new crisis is brewing. Experts have warned about a different problem heightened by the coronavirus: a mental health crisis like we haven't seen before.
Studies have shown that the pandemic has taken a toll on young people, as 62.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds report symptoms of anxiety or depression. But they aren't alone. Other studies attest that as many as one-fifth of all older adults say they felt their mental health had worsened throughout the COVID-19 crisis. A record number of minimum wage workers, from restaurants to retail, have left their jobs this year, citing mental health as a factor. Mental Health America recently published that of the approximately 46 million individuals who identify as Black or African American in the U.S., more than 16 percent reported having a mental illness within the past year. That's more than 7 million people who need help in a time when mental health resources are scarce, local governments are overwhelmed, and health care providers have been stretched to their edge. Millions of people, just like you and me, who are doing their best to stay afloat and meet the moment, are being taken by the waves of the storm.
The last year has taken its toll on all of us, affecting everyone to varying degrees. Some have been able to ride through the storm in a rubber lifeboat, others in canoes of wood taking on water and cracking under the pressure, while some just hang on desperately to whatever floats. Nearby, neighbors have navigated the waves in sailboats with stabilizers, and ships of steel feeling the sting as a cruise ship passes by with a party on the deck. And a select few rocketed away to space.
It's a story popping up all over the media right now in different ways, from the pressures on politicians, leaders, and athletes to the weight the nation has put on the shoulders of working mothers, to the rise in homelessness fueled by compounding factors of housing costs and a lack of mental health resources. If you haven't struggled through this time personally, my guess is you know someone who has, someone you care about that helps put flesh and bones and a face on the story of the decline of mental health in America. But that face isn't always obvious. Anxiety, depression, and waning mental health looks a lot like your smiling neighbor, like your favorite teacher, and the barista serving your morning coffee.
While this very systematic and complex problem requires a deeply systemic solution, we are seeing a unique and beautiful moment where people are speaking up about what they face. From social media to Olympic podiums, women in particular are opening up about prioritizing their own mental health over society's expectations and definition of success. In this time of duress and isolation, many reflected on their lives and focused on what was important to them, what they wanted to create and cultivate, and what they were ready to leave behind. The discomfort of the last year allowed us to see ourselves as we are, the beautiful and the messy and all the in between, and gave us permission to shed the expectations of society and meet the moment by taking care of ourselves how we know best.
It might be getting more sleep or movement, saying "no" instead of "yes," leaving a job or relationship that no longer serves you, nurturing an interest that wants to grow, or just drinking the coffee a little slower. I know I am not alone when I admit that taking care of myself and honoring my boundaries as a mechanism of care has been one of the hardest lessons of all. We need each other, but we need ourselves too.
We can't solve the crisis with self-care alone, but we can start by acknowledging and tending to our own pains and extending empathy and respect for others to live their own truths. And we can start by acknowledging that we exist in a system built on patriarchal demands of perfectionism that try to tear us apart even as we try to be together. There is much work to be done to deconstruct the ideas and structures that drive people into crisis, and construct safe spaces for everyone. And we will not be whole until we get there. Changing this story of care, both within ourselves and out into the world, will lead to systemic change that has the power to hold, to heal, and to make us stronger than before. Δ
Quinn Brady (she/her) is a community advocate, organizer and mother on the Central Coast. Send a response for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org.